The emergence of postcolonial theory as an academic tradition, particularly in the United States, can be traced to the late 1970s with the publication of Edward Said’s book Orientalism (1978). According to Said, Orientalism is a powerful body of knowledge – power/knowledge in Michel Foucault’s sense – produced by texts and institutional practices of western colonialism beginning with Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798. Said finds three key elements in Orientalism: first, the power/knowledge of colonial institutions and texts to understand, control, and manipulate the “Orient” (or the east); second, the representation of “Oriental” societies as an unchanging cultural essence; and third, the fabrication of the “Orient” as an ahistorical space waiting to be transformed by historical progress and social development.
Orientalism, according to Said, was a European enterprise from the beginning. Its producers were European scholars and writers; its consumers were European students and readers; the non-European subjects of Orientalism figured only as inert objects. Since the “western self” of the European Orientalist made sense only in opposition to the “Oriental other,” the traces of each in the other were systematically ignored or concealed. By positing that the east–west binary opposition predated colonialism, Orientalism also made Europe’s colonial conquests seem legitimate. According to Said, although Orientalism underwent considerable changes over time, its basic structures and procedures have remained rather stable.
One of the most significant and sustained challenges to the Orientalist discourses of European colonialism (and later American imperialism) has come from theorists and practitioners of postcolonial nationalism, particularly in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. And yet, postcolonial nationalists stayed within the dominant frameworks of western power/knowledge to imagine a nation that is at once modern in its political statecraft and authentic in its cultural history and memory. In Nationalist thought and the colonial world, Partha Chatterjee (1986) demonstrates how Indian nationalists like Bankim, Gandhi, and Nehru struggled to create an authentic vision of an uncolonized nation, even as they were heavily influenced by western theories of modern statecraft and Orientalist representations of Indian history and culture. Following the European Orientalists who came before them, many Indian nationalists saw India as an essentialized unity; its historical progression was still seen in terms of the (ancient) Hindu, the (invading) Muslim, and the (modern) British periods.
Despite their complicity with Orientalism, the postcolonial nationalists did manage to break the Orientalist monopoly on power/knowledge, establishing the postcolonial subject as a sovereign, rational, and active agent of history. Therefore, as Gyan Prakash (1996) argues, postcolonial nationalism – notwithstanding its many contradictions – should be considered one of the most important ways in which the third world writes its own history.
If postcolonial nationalists accused Orientalism of deliberate ideological misrepresentations, Marxist critics of third world nationalism have argued that the idealized notion of a unified postcolonial nation is itself an ideological category, not unlike Orientalist idealizations of the colonial world. Thus, one of the major contributions of Marxism in postcolonial theory has been to destabilize the illusion of an undivided nation and to point toward the heterogeneity of the nationalist subject – albeit only in the economic domain of class struggles between dominant elites and subordinated workers.
Moving the debate on postcolonial theory beyond the political-economic domain, some cultural anthropologists, sociologists, and structuralist historians have worked to reveal heterogeneity in the domains of race, gender, class, caste, age, religion, region, language, and so on. However, for a long time, many of these approaches, like Orientalism, remained “essentialist” in theorizing colonial and postcolonial discourses with reference to essences of either class, social deep structures, or native culture.
A crucial break from the essentialist legacy of Orientalism has come from a recent turn toward anti-essentialism, or what is also known as post-foundationalism or post-Orientalism. One of the most prominent and successful contributions is found in the works of the Subaltern Studies Group. This group, dispersed across North America, Latin America, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe, has come up with what Edward Said (1988, v) described as “massively detailed, and frankly revisionist . . . fiercely theoretical and intellectually insurrectionary accounts of marginalized subjects in the colonial and postcolonial worlds.” Ranajit Guha (1988, 35) writes that the word “subaltern” is used “as a name for the general attribute of subordination . . . whether this is expressed in terms of class, caste, age, gender, and office, or in any other way.”
Arguing that much writing on the history of the postcolonial world is teleological and essentialist, the Subaltern Studies Group has attempted to construct anti-essentialist histories from below – from subaltern perspectives. Some early writings relapsed into essentialist frameworks of Hegelian dialectics and Marxist ideology critiques to “recover” the subaltern from elite domination. However, the Group’s creative deployment of the subaltern as a heterogeneous, hybrid, and historically contingent subject has been theoretically refreshing and methodologically reinvigorating.
A sustained focus on historical contingency, marginality, heterogeneity, and hybridity in Subaltern Studies has been further emphasized by other leading postcolonial scholars, such as Homi Bhabha, Nestor Garcia Canclini, Stuart Hall, and Gayatri Spivak. Their scholarship has been particularly significant in contemporary debates because it situates postcolonial theory in a global context where it intersects productively with other antiessentialist theories in postmodernism, poststructuralism, post-Marxism, and feminism.
- Chatterjee, P. (1986). Nationalist thought and the colonial world: A derivative discourse? London: Zed.
- Guha, R. (1988). Preface. In R. Guha & G. Chakravorty Spivak (eds.), Selected subaltern studies. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
- McLeod, J. (2000). Beginning postcolonialism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
- Prakash, G. (1996). Who’s afraid of postcoloniality? Social Text, 14(4), 187–203.
- Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.
- Said, E. (1988). Foreword. In R. Guha & G. Chakravorty Spivak (eds.), Selected subaltern studies. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
- Shome, R., & Hegde, R. S. (2002). Postcolonial approaches to communication: Charting the terrain, engaging the intersections. Communication Theory, 12(3), 240–270.
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